David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: nietzsche (page 3 of 4)

Denis Diderot: Rameau’s Nephew

(This etext of Rameau’s Nephew seems to be an adequate translation, and it’s a short piece.)

I’ve sat on this one for a bit because it is such a strange book, and I fear that a lack of context for it could easily lead a reader down the path of a wrong interpretation. Still, what is on the page is a fairly simple story; it’s the implications that are left ambiguous. The “I” who is the narrator encounters “He,” Rameau’s nephew, in the street, and has something of a one-sided conversation with him. “He” is something of a societal con-man, a poor man who has mastered polite conversation to climb his way to various functions and subsidence. Yet he is filled with contempt for those around him; his loves for art, opera, and his dead wife alienate him from the society he inhabits. He is often cynical, yet reveals the highest ideals at several points, and cries at his inability to bring them to life despite obvious intelligence and skill. “I” stands by and issues ultra-idealistic, naive remarks questioning “He,” taking a condescending Panglossian standpoint towards “He”‘s lack of ethics and integrity.

Hegel loved Rameau’s Nephew and declared “He” to be an advancement in consciousness, transcending “I”‘s conventional and unimaginative “honest self” construct. Lionel Trilling drew on Hegel’s interpretation in Sincerity and Authenticity to present a model of human evolution in which we conceived of an “inner self” strictly separate from our external behavior, one we could or could not be “sincere” to. “He”, Trilling says, is one of the earliest examples of the inauethentic self on full display; i.e., the man who forever measures the distance between his thoughts and the actions which he performs in society. Trilling states:

The moral judgement which the dialogue makes upon man in society is not finally rejected but coexists with its contradition, and upon its validity and weight depends the force of the idea that the moral categories may be transcended. And it is the Nephew himself who invokes the moral categories at the same time that he negates them–the moral judgement is grounded upon the cogency of Rameau’s observation of social behaviour and the shamelessness with which he exhibits his own shame.

To paraphrase, Trilling suggests that “He” has taken the first step towards Nietzsche’s analysis of ethics, not by condemning morality but by saying that it is not an authentic performance, so that morality is something that must be done with conscious intent, and may not reflect what a person has in their heart. (It is this position that Alasdair MacIntyre would later identify as the keystone weakness of Enlightenment ethics in his brilliant After Virtue.)

It is the “I” that first interests me. While “He” is hardly coherent in his beliefs, alternating between a Nietzschean destruction of Enlightenment values and a more arbitrary Schopenhauer-esque personal bitterness at the world, “I” does a fairly lousy job of refuting him. “I” is, if anything, less likable and certainly less interesting, and in no way could be said to represent Diderot’s own values. Even at the very end, when “He” declares that he’d rather beg favor than work for a bourgeois life, “I” spits on him, calling him amoral and lazy, all the while displaying the attitude of the well-off fat cat who’s just come from a salon. (The introduction by “I” is particularly obnoxious when read in this light.)

While “He” rants and trumpets himself, “I” offers token opposition, but what is “I”‘s reaction to “He”‘s charge of hypocrisy in the upper classes, attacking the shallow salons and social habits of the perfumed set, accusing them of not knowing good music from bad, and not recognizing life from death? “I” begins to acknowledge the hypocrisy of his own people, but only in parenthetical comments, not in his actual dialogue:

In all this there was much that we all think and on which we all act, but which we leave unsaid. That, indeed, was the most obvious difference between this man and most of those we meet. He owned up to the vices he had and which others have–he was no hypocrite. He was no more abominable than they, and no less. He was simply more open, more consistent, and sometimes more profound in his depravity.

Interesting that “I” excludes himself from this charge. Interesting that shortly after this observation, he once more attacks “He” for lacking exactly this consistency. “He” declares his praise for the cynic Diogenes, who abandoned corrupt society to live in squalor in pursuit of truth. “He” confesses that he likes the benefits of haute couture too much to leave them behind, and “I” viciously attacks him as a cowardly wastrel (with which “He” cheerfully agrees). This inconsistency is too great to be unintentional. “I” is more of a target than “He”: “I” admits “He”‘s points, but only to himself, and does not condemn himself for working within society. But for “He” to take advantage of the corrupt system is a betrayal. “I”‘s interest lies in protecting the notion of fair play within the system that “He” has damned. After all, it’s in “I”‘s best interests.

Diderot’s attack, I think, is the first critique of Enlightenment reformism, the notion that a system can yield intellectual integrity and incremental improvements even as its people are terrible hypocrites. Moreover, it shows one of the system’s brightest exponents (“I”) able to hear and understand criticism of the system while still condemning the messenger. “I” privately admits the strength of “He”‘s critique to himself, yet ends by publicly thrashing “He,” claiming “He” has no credibility. Yet of course, the critic’s credibility was ruined by openly criticizing the system in the first place. By straying from acceptable (hypocritical) speech, “He” loses authority in the very system his unacceptable speech attacks. “I”‘s argument is a more sophisticated variant of “Play by the rules. If you don’t like it, go to Russia.” One look at the Washington press corps today, and the similarities are painful.

Shaviro on Schumpeter

Steve Shaviro has a fantastic entry up on Joseph Schumpeter. I have to go back and reread my copy of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy before I can respond in more depth, but Shaviro has some great points to make, and the Nietzsche connection he draws is not one I ever would have thought of.

As Shaviro mentions, Schumpeter more than gave Marx his due; he tore up widely-held generalizations about Marx and de-Hegelized him in order to isolate his general socio-economic sensibilities from the ideas of Communism. In that light, his ideas on class structure (independent of class warfare) and its impact on society become, as Schumpeter says, useful to thinkers on the economic left and right alike. Schumpeter at points appears to try to push Marx into a conservative reformist category; he is not convincing on this point, but the vaguely anarcho-capitalist politics that result share a visionary spirit with those of Marx. And like Marx, he distrusts the intellectuals.

Shaviro says that Schumpeter’s prophecy of an increasingly socialized state hasn’t come to pass and will not, because the flaws in capitalism Schumpeter identifies–the death of entrepreneurship, e.g.–are those that are caused by the triumph of capitalism, not its downfall. I’m not so sure. The one thing the radical/conservative Republican revolution has not brought back is smaller government (has there ever been an administration who did?). While people have argued over whether the religious fundamentalist leanings of the administration are real or just posturing (I would say somewhat the latter), there’s no question that the Republicans’ (and often Democrats’) “smaller government” claims are total bullshit, designed to convince people that the money for their tax refunds will be there when it comes time to pay the piper. Instead, there is the increasing consolidation of power under the executive branch, favoritism towards a select set of companies that are cronies of the administration, and a near-total dismissal of states’ rights except on conservative social issues, which is where they get the votes.

It’s not a socialized state per se, but nor is it one that would allow for Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” brought to fruition. Likewise, the administration is devoid of anything that could be reasonably called an intellectual, but it’s full of people that share the same impractical elements that Schumpeter disliked: ideologues. Schumpeter defines intellectuals as “people who wield the power of the spoken and written word. . . [in] the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs.” Shaviro thinks this means folks like him (and I guess myself). Well, I don’t feel any power in my words, but I know some people whose words have great power and who never take responsibility for how they affect practical affairs, and do I need to say who they are? The neocons, the AEI, the Heritage Foundation, Fox News, and the Cabinet themselves. Whether this is capitalism triumphant (Shaviro’s view) or capitalism betrayed (Schumpeter’s view) is more a matter of opinion.

Robert Musil and Walter Rathenau

Maybe now is the time to learn German. Karl Corino’s massive, 2000-page biography of Robert Musil was recently published, and apart from articles in the New Left Review and the TLS, I haven’t seen much mention of it in my English-speaking circles. Philip Payne, who translated and edited the English reduction of Musil’s diaries, did the TLS review, about half of which is present at that link.

For me it’s tantalizing, since it relates something that remains very oblique even in the diaries, which is Musil’s ongoing and shifting relation to the The Man Without Qualities, which he was creating for decades. I’m skeptical of the theorizing over Musil’s syphilis and the hint that Musil wasn’t especially good for his friends. Speaking about the brilliant but flighty and capricious Clarisse, from MWQ, and her real-life parallel Alice Donath, Payne says:

(Clarisse, like Alice, goes mad after her marriage and is eventually placed in an institution; one wonders whether Musil’s wedding gift to Alice of Nietzsche’s Collected Works, or his letter inviting her to become his “little sister” contributed to her troubles.)

Without knowing the details, I have to wonder if Payne has spent too much time with Musil and his (many) flaws. Ray Monk grew to despise Bertrand Russell while working on his biography, and I’m sure that Musil’s unyielding, single-minded genius could easily have the same effect.

But I’m intrigued by the talk of Musil’s increasing isolation from his work’s sources: not just temporally, but even personally, as he stopped associating with friends who had been the novel’s models. This, however, seems secondary to Musil’s situational problem, which is that history had left him behind:

In a letter of 1934 to his friend the satirist Franz Blei, Musil, given his desperate personal situation and the Nazi takeover in Germany, compares his continued work on The Man without Qualities to “the diligence of a woodworm, boring through a picture frame in a house that is already ablaze”.

The metaphor alludes to the Reichstag fire, but also to Musil’s own task. He was, very carefully, tearing apart the liberal and nationalistic ambitions and ideals personified in the characters of MWQ. The failure of “the barren conceit of the brain” manifested in the Great War is the constant theme, and there is no greater representative of the brain of statecraft than Arnheim, whom Musil repeatedly dissects as brilliant, but shallow. Arnheim was modeled on Walter Rathenau, the businessman and foreign minister who became one of the most prominent international negotiators in post-Versailles Germany, until he was assassinated by anti-Semitic right-wingers in 1922, removing one more obstacle in the way of the ideological and political ascent of Nazism.

Musil’s engagement with Arnheim/Rathenau is total, but by 1934, it could not have seemed relevant. He was attacking an Enlightenment-derived ideology in one of the better statesmen of the century while National Socialism had taken over the world around him. Excavation of a flawed “frame” was hardly noticeable while the house was on fire.

Musil treats the more extreme aspects in the later parts of the book, introducing the figure of Meingast, a faux-mystical shyster who plays like Kevin Kline quoting Nietzsche in A Fish Called Wanda. Meingast was loosely based on Ludwig Klages, a Spengler-ish conservative, anti-Semitic moron, deservedly forgotten. (I’d rather not link to the stuff that turns up, but if you’d like to be introduced to Klages and his unpleasant breathren such as Carl Schmitt, try looking for them on Google.) While Musil has some fun with Meingast (he’s the only character who is really a caricature), you sense that his heart’s not in it; Meingast is not a challenge. Anyone with a brain would hardly take him seriously. But anyone with a brain was in short supply.

(For an inexact modern parallel, I think of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, where he condemns the anti-egghead attitude by pointing to how Eisenhower, the “normal guy” candidate, won twice over the wonky, detached Adlai Stevenson. Oh, for such days again….)

Musil wrote “On Stupidity” in 1937, a abstruse (for him) Benjamin-like exercise in postponement in which he never quite gets around to what he wants to say because it would get him in big trouble. I won’t subject it to close reading here, but consider the very end of it:

For because our knowledge and ability are incomplete, we are forced in every field to judge prematurely; but we make the effort, and have learned to keep this error within recognized limits and occasionally improve on it, and by this means put our activity back on the right track. There is really no reason why this exact and proudly humble judgment and activity could not be carried over into other areas as well, and I believe that the principle, “Act as well as you can and as badly as you must, but in doing so remain aware of the margin of error of your actions!” would already be halfway toward a promising arrangement of life.

Why the sudden pragmatism and appeal to modesty, attitudes not particularly present in MWQ? Earlier in the same essay he closes the book on German Enlightenment attitudes, saying that the new task is “to complete the always necessary, indeed deeply desired, transition to the new with the least possible loss.” His plea for caution is an attempt at damage control, with the fatalistic implication that he himself is an anachronism, and that all his brains can only boil the present day down to a homily that should be obvious. Rathenau is long dead, and with him much of the kindling for Musil’s work.

Update: Thomas Pynchon chimes in via Gravity’s Rainbow, shortly before Rathenau is channelled by some Nazis and issues some cryptic mystical statements about industrialization, chemistry, and death:

His father Emil Rathenau had founded AEG, the German General Electric Compny, but young Walter was more than another industrial heir–he was a philosopher with a vision of the postwar State. He saw the war in progress as a world revolution, out of which would rise neither Red communism nor an unhindered Right, but a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority–a structure based, not surprisingly, on the one he’d engineered in Germany for fighting the World War. (165)

Though Rathenau seems to have had a change of heart post-death, since the live Rathenau never spoke of “The persistence, then, of structures favoring death.”

The Confusions of Young Toerless, Robert Musil (pt 1: Autobiography)

Young Toerless begins with a quote from Maeterlinck, who was an avowed influence on Musil, but one that he later appeared to discount. In The Man Without Qualities, there is a half-sneering reference to “Maeterlinck’s batik-wrapped metaphysics.” What Musil quotes is one of Maeterlinck’s typically mystical statements about the ineffability of the noumenal; i.e., that there is an objective, external indisputable world about which our words are unsatisfactory approximations:

As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way…We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure trove, and when we return to the light of day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered.

Later, Musil seemed to discount the purely objective nature of the noumenal and weighed words and objects more equivocally. There were problems in mapping, but one did not have such high precedence over the other. Rather, it was the illusion of the noumenal that led people like Oswald Spengler down some dark paths.

Yet Toerless would appear to buy into it. The story is a fairly explicit tale of the torture and torment, sexual and otherwise, of one German boarding school boy by three others. The philosophy is nascent, but more on that later. Maeterlinck’s statement, though, doesn’t map too clearly onto any of the low-grade (by Musil’s standards, anyway) philosophical discourse, nor onto the eventual mental breakdowns of the victim (Basini) and Toerless, one of his torturers. It maps most clearly onto a process of autobiographical remembrance.

Musil explicitly denied the autobiographical content of the story. The boarding school background matched his very closely, and J.M. Coetzee claims that specific models for each character are known. I don’t know, but it’s not crucial that the facts or the characters have real-life equivalents. Dennis Potter said of The Singing Detective, “Just because the disease [psoriasis] is mine, and just because the childhood background is mine, doesn’t make it autobiographical.” His statement is unconvincing not because the work is imaginary, but because a certain level of experiential overlap, the question is no longer meaningful. Characters cannot run so free when imprisoned in an environment that is more remembered than imagined.

You can grant that the characters, even Toerless himself, are loose composites and still leave the content of the book as essentially autobiographical, and that is the key here. There is a scene very early on describing Toerless’s friendship with a young prince, which is broken after Toerless attacks his opinions with “the ridicule of the rationalist.” The parameters of the dispute are left completely undocumented, unlike the explicit Nietzschean meanderings of the main characters later. The tonal emphasis is on remembering and the presentation of a mental state of character in the act of reconstructing a past event by following the remnant emotions. Toerless can’t do it; his memory is approximate and the motives beyond his ability to comprehend. This is where the Maeterlinck quote is most appropriate, and where the book is most effective.


The Book of Franza, Ingeborg Bachmann

A painful and considered novel, not totally finished, but a door to some new possibilities for fiction. Or possibly a dead end.

Bachmann’s earlier stories collected in The Thirtieth Year were very much in a straight line from Mann and Broch. Educated men (they are almost always men) think about and discuss matters of justice and morality that their circumstances belie. They don’t bring much new to the field except for a very evocative style, and for the 50’s, the plots are archaic, relying on the sort of personal/political trauma that was being abandoned by her contemporaries. “A Step Towards Gomorrah,” an apocalyptic lesbian power struggle almost devoid of larger context, gives the most indication of where she was going, and is the best of the batch.

Her later stories, from Three Paths to the Lake, keep the style but drop the ideological orientation in favor of a more particular and partial view of damaged personalities and relationships, with gaps of information, irreparable disconnections, and hints of total breakdown. “Word by Word,” about a translator breaking from her knowledge of language and consequently from the people in her world, is so immersive in its particular affliction as to rank with any Germanic fiction I’ve read of the last 50 years.

The Book of Franza isn’t the most extreme example of her later approach (the story it’s bundled with, “Requiem for Fanny Goldman,” is far more nightmarish and histrionic), but it’s the clearest I’ve read, where she significantly ties a woman’s breakdown to mythological and historical elements. Its nihilism, however, is total; I can’t think of any redemptive moment in the story that Bachmann actually endorses. But it’s a measured nihilism, far closer to Joanna Russ than Celine, and Bachmann’s ability to articulate it while spinning the prose into a vortex of disorienting mental collapse is impressive.

The book is a companion to one of the later stories, “The Barking,” which introduced Franza and her monster of a husband, Leo. She assists him with his studies on concentration camp survivors, and he is rather terrible to her. Neither focuses on the particulars of Leo, indirectly addressing his effects on his mother (in “The Barking”) and Franza herself (in the novel). Franza’s already fled from him in the novel, and her brother Martin is taking care of her. She describes living with Leo as living with the force of destruction and terror itself. (What is seen of Leo strangely anticipates the narrator William Kohler of Wiliam Gass’s The Tunnel. Doped up on pills, having been to a sanitorium, and hardly in a functional state, she drags her brother to Egypt, where she communes with those exploited by “the whites,” wanders in the desert and, somewhat willingly, dies.

The focus on the symptoms and the victim over the causes–the narrative of the victim who is so damaged as to comprehend only slowly what has happened and what is happening–mixes uneasily with Bachmann’s parallels between Leo/Franza and the greater masses of the exploited. Franza does not have a victim complex, but she is so broken as to be unable to clearly articulate her reasons for her journey. The novel is an indictment of the traditional forms of rational discourse as being inherently fascistic, and so, as with “Word for Word” it’s the failed process of articulation itself that has to contain the significance. The result is inherently ambiguous. The linkages to the third-world and the hostile but honest forces of the desert are consciously grafted on, seemingly by Franza’s subconscious intent, but this explanation risks being too cogent given Franza’s decaying mental state.

Mark Anderson in the introduction to Three Paths to the Lake says:

Brother and sister travel to Egypt in a semi-mystical retreat from contemporary Western civilization that owes much to Robert Musil’s use of the same theme in his novel The Man Without Qualities. Invoking the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, Musil’s and Bachmann’s novels explore the themes of incest and twin personalities to gain access to a mystical “other state” beyond conventional patriarchal relation.

I don’t know much from semi-mystical retreats, but this seems pretty wide off the mark, and not just because Franza completely dominates Bachmann’s book. Musil doesn’t seem to be Bachmann’s main target, but he’s clearly in the line that Bachmann is attacking, because he is still trying to get at truth through aggressive (post-Nietzschean) discourse. Bachmann not only discounts that kind of effort, but lumps it in with the stated evils of Leo’s studies and classical European society. Franza gains a kind of immanent metaphysical knowledge at the end, but it is hardly a solution. It’s a statement against the entire process.

The Book of Franza was not finished, but what remains is one of the more honest venues for an author who got around her intellectual bent and came out very dark. The treatment has something in common with the degenerative approach of Wolfgang Koeppen, but is far more of a break with the past. It is nihilistic without being obnoxious, placing it far above E.M. Cioran and probably above Celine. Its attempts to carve out an autonomous response to the male-dominated genres which enveloped Bachmann are far more successful than Christa Wolf. What it lacks, perhaps intentionally, is coherence.

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